Opinion: National Citizen Service – value for money?

Throughout the summer holidays up to 13,000 16 to 17 year olds across England and Wales will be taking part in the second year pilot of the National Citizen Service.

This is the Coalition government’s flagship youth development programme described by David Cameron as: “A kind of non-military national service. It’s going to mix young people from different backgrounds……Above all its going to inspire a generation of young people … what they can achieve and how they can be part of the Big Society.”

The scheme is a three week programme in which young people spend the first two weeks living away from home – first on an outdoor course taking part in activities such as rock climbing, rafting or trekking, then a week living independently in self-catering accommodation designing and implementing a volunteering project in their community. The third week is spent back at home putting their project into action.

The scheme has not however been without its critics. The Commons Education Select Committee in a report on Youth Services published last June was concerned both at its cost – £1182 per person in 2011 at the same time as local authorities were cutting back on local youth service provision.

They also found that a similar year-long volunteering programme run by the German government cost £1228 per young person and considerably enhanced young people’s skills and future careers.

Total expenditure on Local Authority run youth services was £350 million in 2009-10 and has been particularly hard hit by local government funding cuts.

In May this year the government announced that the National Citizen Service would be expanded to 120,000 in the next two years at an additional cost of £156m. Recently it announced that the scheme would run during half terms and weekends so that it is available “all the year round”.

The principle of providing support for young people’s personal and social development including an element of volunteering is, I’m sure, accepted by everyone.

However does a programme costing £1200 per person for a three week “rite of passage” really good value for money?

Many other countries provide volunteering schemes at a fraction of the costs – the German Governments scheme costs £43m in total.

Students taking the International Baccalaureate Diploma have to spend the equivalent of three hours per week over two years taking part in a “creativity, action and service” programme designed to enhance their personal, interpersonal, social and civic development    as a compulsory part of the course.

With the school leaving age about to be raised to eighteen should we not be looking at a similar development for all young people? Such a scheme would involve existing youth organisations and be progressive rather than a bolt-on activity.

This government, apart from the National Citizen Service, has not put forward any new initiatives for youth services. Is it not time as the progressive part of the Coalition that we took a lead?

* Paul Rowen is the former MP for Rochdale

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  • Richard Dean 14th Aug '12 - 5:12pm

    It looks like a good scheme to me, and one that ought to be ten times larger, and extend to a fourth week living somewhere on the European mainland. Of course the scheme should be continuously improved throgh feedback etc as well.

    A small part of the scheme’s value may be that it is NOT organized by the same people as organize a lot of other things in a given younster’s life. There would be value in getting the particpants to do some of the organizing – and this really is feasible espcially with all the information available on the internet. There seems to be no reason why this scheme should necessarily prevent schools from organizing other things for youngsters

    Cost per person looks like someone should investigate whether private suppliers are involved and making excess profits, yes. But the total cost is trivial in comparison to GDP or tax take – comparable to what Osborne said was negligible in a justification of reducing the tp tax rate to 45%.

  • Alison Pirouet 15th Aug '12 - 9:51am

    2 of my children took part on the pilot scheme, whilst they viewed it as a ‘jolly’ they did put in a lot of work, met new people and gained new skills -mine came away with first aider training and certification, and sighted blind carer. Also our group the the Catch22 National fundraising award. This year has been very different and very difficult to fill due to the weeks being moved and clashing with prom week – not a good move, as they would have been away for their prom. My experience was that it cost 50.00 each last year (similar this year I believe) which is good value for money, but if youhave more than one going – as I did it is expensive. There is spending money on top, and then gettring them to wherever they do the social action project. Again I felt this was a scheme aimed at those with parental backup and not the young people who could probably do with it. It is a hugh committment from young people, families and the providers for the whole of the summer, perhaps a rethink and maybe dividing it between two holidays or something. Does your costing allow for the costs involved by the providers – I am aware the our providers where not happy at the costs they involved on this project.

  • thanks for your comments. The feedback I’ve been getting is that the quality of the programmes is extremely variable. Some organisations charge and some don’t. Who gets on the scheme seems to depend – those in the know and yes it does require quite a lot of time and committment of parents. My main point though is is this at a time of financial restrictions a good use of money? The German scheme is a twelve month programme of social development and volunteering and it costs the same as the NCS. Also whilst it might be an enjoyable experience could the money not be better spent on those organisations and charities that work with young people all year round. A fantastic three week experience pales into insignificance if there is no youth service provision in an area.
    Also the government has already cut all the other programmes that worked especially with “difficult” youngsters which did go on all year round.

  • “organisations that make extensive use of volunteers, especially if those are from groups with high unemployment etc.”
    This makes me feel a bit sick – if the y are in an area of high unemployment, the best thing would be to give them real jobs.

    In my school holidays I set up and ran a summer project – and got paid. It was an excellent scheme within an established organisation with mentors and career potential. Particularly for children living in deprivation, a wage would relieve some of the deprivation they have to cope with.

    If we are going to be paying £400 a week per person for this scheme, there is scope to provide an allowance of £200 a week.

  • Paul, thanks for highlighting the IB creativity/action/service programme. It’s important to note here that any school or college delivering the IB programme has to meet the needs for additional resources needed for CAS off their own bat, or they lose points with the IB organization. Students must organize their own projects and stick to them, or risk failing the entire diploma, which encourages an entrepreneurial and daring approach amongst students. The government approach is to contract providers and subsidise placements, which inevitably loses the element of free action and responsibility that makes students on the CAS programme more dynamic.

    Mine wasn’t particularly exciting, spent in community radio and charity shops, but other students were able to put together some really inspirational projects from unlikely sources. The present system of sending students out to fixed activities is hardly likely to generate the same kind of engagement with civil society.

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